1959. Love it or hate it, Achebe’s tale of a flawed tribal patriarch is a powerful and important contribution to twentieth century literature.
Think back to 1959. Liberation from colonial masters had not yet swept the African continent when this book appeared, but the pressures were building. The US civil rights movement had not yet erupted, but the forces were in motion. Communism and capitalism were fighting a pitched battle for control of hearts and minds, for bodies and land, around the world. Africans would suffer under the proxy wars waged there to keep the Cold War cold.
Achebe tells the tale of Okonkwo, a young man of some fame throughout the nine villages and beyond for his wrestling prowess. He is a product of his land, his culture, his religion, and his people. He represents a way of life which admires and rewards strength, loyalty, hard work, a strong hand, and strict adherence to a social code.
He builds his life, takes wives, works his land, produces boys and girls to honor and carry on his legacy. When duty to the tribe makes demands, he must respond even if that response requires great personal sacrifice.
You can’t read this book through the prism of your own experience. Part of the mystery of fiction from cultures far afield from your own is the chance it affords to consider how men and women of a certain time and place grappled with the very human issue of living within an exotic social group.
Consider your own social group, and imagine how you would explain your daily and exceptional actions to someone from another religion, from another country, from another language group, from another generation, from another century. Where would you start? Perhaps by considering how you spend a normal day, then how you arrived at the great choices that formed your life. That’s a helluva task to set yourself. In my humble opinion, that was the task Achebe set for himself in writing this book.